Choosing a prep course that is right for you
What is my level of English? What do I really need? These are questions few soon-to-be candidates ask themselves before setting out to look for an IELTS prep course.
As a former exam preparation teacher overseas, more often than not I was faced with concerned low-level general English students telling me how desperately they needed to prepare for 'ILETS' (yes, you read that right!). Even though the 'ILETS' mantra became such an ordinary thing to hear, it never ceased to raise red flags: not only did these students not know they had gotten the name of the exam wrong, many of them were unaware of the fact that their level of proficiency was far below the required score. Even more surprisingly, many of these students would book their tests on a whim, and would have only weeks, if not days, to prepare.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not unique to a specific region. People with unrealistic expectations when it comes to preparing for IELTS and achieving a specific score are everywhere, including Canada. The fact is that preparing for the exam requires more than simply signing up for the first prep course that comes up on your Google search, which leads us back to the two questions at the beginning of this post:
What is my level of English?
Before deciding on a prep course, it is paramount that you know your current level of English proficiency, as well as the band score you need to achieve. Being aware of this will allow you to determine how big (or small!) a gap there is between where you are now and where you need to be, and hence the type of course that best meets your needs.
In terms of the IELTS band score, the organization to which you are applying will establish the band you require, using scores from 1 to 9 (http://ieltscanadatest.com/test-results/how-ielts-is-scored/), so check directly with them to find out what IELTS score you need.
As for your current level of English, there are a number of ways to determine where you stand. If you have recently completed a General English course or have done a diagnostic test at a recognized English centre, then you may already know what your language ability is according to the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). In such case, you can check out the mapping of the IELTS scale to the CEFR, to get an idea as to where you are on the 9-band scale.
You can also take an IELTS practice test, review your answers and assess your Reading and Listening scores to the IELTS scale. Keep in mind that the Writing and Speaking parts of the test are marked by trained IELTS examiners. However, you can compare your answers to model answers, while getting familiar with all the different parts of the test.
You can also take a free IELTS seminar either online or in-person to get an overview of the test and determine based on the presentation where you think your skills are as well as where you think you might need to focus your efforts on improvement.
What do I really need?
Even though determining your language ability is no exact science, the suggestions above can provide you with a strong enough foundation for the next big step: choosing the right course. Once you know where you stand and where you need to be, you will be better able to decide whether you are ready for an IELTS preparation course. If the gap between the two is greater than you expected, you should consider opting for a General English course first. Remember that most English schools in Canada will require a minimum level of CEFR B1 or IELTS 4.5 to join an IELTS prep program.
Other factors to take into consideration when choosing an IELTS prep course include the following:
- Time and availability
Before booking your IELTS test, it is important that you have a realistic view in terms of how much preparation you need. While a 'quick' 4-week intensive course might be the way to go for some future test takers, others might benefit more from a 12-week program. It really all depends on how far or close you currently are to your goal and, of course, on how flexible your current schedule is.
- Academic and General training
When signing up for a prep course, take into account the version of the test you need to prepare for: whether it is General or Academic training (Centres generally run classes aimed at both versions, divided by level as opposed to type of training), but beware as some schools might have prep classes tailored specifically to either General or Academic.
- Group classes vs. private tutoring
Although group classes are a more common and affordable way to prepare, private tutoring can also be a valid alternative for some. There are many advantages to preparing for IELTS on a one-to-one basis (personalization, convenience, flexibility, to name a few), but bear in mind the cost and the lack of peer interaction, which can be very motivating and enriching.
Now it is up to you to put yourself in the best position to succeed. In the end, the effort and work you put into achieving your goals are just as important as choosing the right prep course!